It's no bother...It's overkill!

I just finished reading Chris Dawson's article (Macs…Why bother?), and aside from getting my institution wrong (I work for Indiana University, NOT the University of Illinois), he is correct -- but so are many of his TalkBack respondents.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

I just finished reading Chris Dawson's article (Macs…Why bother?), and aside from getting my institution wrong (I work for Indiana University, NOT the University of Illinois), he is correct -- but so are many of his TalkBack respondents.  Contradictory?  Not at all. 

Unlike many of his respondents, and even my own university's computing environment, his K-12 needs are almost exclusively for personal productivity applications -- and specialty learning games -- many of which were originally written for MacOS (68K and PowerPC) and long-since ported to Windows. 

His students are still learning to use the tools effectively -- and most of his faculty are teaching broad subjects -- not narrow disciplines.  The exceptions being his own computer science courses -- where he has the luxury of picking the platform which he can best maintain. 

Generally, the students in this K-12 setting are not learning to produce new works but rather are learning to reproduce the work already done by others. 

Chris has indicated that his faculty have no dependencies on the Mac OSX platform to teach their subjects.  As Chris pointed out, here at Indiana University, we have a robust Macintosh computing environment for faculty and students.  Demand for Macintosh (and UNIX) peaked in the mid-90's but the demand has been dropping steadily over the last few years. 

One respondent argued that now that Macintosh is Intel-based it can dual-boot to Windows so why not go with the platform that does both?  If seat-count were not more important than platform availability, this might be a good solution -- especially in environments where both platforms were required by the bulk of users but this is rarely the case in an educational setting.  Instead, the vast majority of personal productivity applications, and many development applications are available on both platforms. 

Discipline-specific applications, on the other hand, tend to be on one platform or the other but often not both.  In these discipline-specific settings, the need to support a specific platform becomes mission-critical.  In those instances, the need determines which platform to deploy -- and the choice is to deploy a mix of both.

In short, both Windows and Macintosh platforms will meet the great bulk of the needs of both K-12 and university students.  And often only in the university setting do discipline-specific needs make either platform mission-critical.  So why aren't there more Macintosh computers in these K-12 settings?  It comes down to one word.  Price. 

To be sure, Apple makes a high-quality, high-performance, product and they sell it to a discriminating clientele.  No one will question the ease of use or reliability of these products either.  Nor is "care and feeding" of individual workstations an issue. 

We used to think of the Macintosh as a premium-priced product but now that Apple has embraced the Intel architecture, it is easy to demonstrate that a Macintosh costs no more than a similarly configured Dell.  So why is price an issue?

It's an issue because Apple is not interested in selling an entry-level product to the casual computer user.  At one time, Apple concentrated all if its efforts to sell computers in bulk on the educational market but that effort has long since vanished -- sadly, right along with funding for education in general. 

While Dell, et. al., must compete in the fiercely competitive commodity desktop market, Apple has the luxury of maintaining the wider margins of the high-performance desktop market.  This comes at a cost -- that of overall market share.  Apple has traded competitiveness in overall market penetration for dominance in a select market niche.  That decision pretty-much guarantees their survival as well as their "also-ran" status.  Without exposure in the K-12 education sector, Macintosh name recognition is like to continue to slip.  Can the popularity of iPod (another premium product from Apple) stem the tide?  I don't know.

In the end, purchasing a Macintosh desktop and relegating it to running personal productivity applications is a waste of money and a waste workstation capability.  For the same price, Ed Tech can purchase two moderately-configured PCs or three bare-bones systems, any of which can run all of the programs the students Chris supports will need during their high school careers. 

This doesn't touch on the support issues.  Sure taking care of individual Macintosh computers is easy and straightforward.  Much more so than with Intel-based systems but what about custom workstation images?  There are a wide variety of tools available for the distribution of custom Windows disk images to machines of differing vintages, and a variety of ways to maintain those images on a ongoing basis without having to visit the hardware.  Similarly, Windows effectively manages network log-ins in a straightforward manner.  Similar tools for Macintosh are few and they do not yet represent mature solutions.  In truth, in a large heterogeneous environment, the support challenges for Macintosh are no less significant than those for Windows. 

Apple has picked it's market.  It is lucrative, it is profitable, and it is a smart strategy for a company dependent upon hardware sales for its profits.  The Microsoft strategy, on the other hand is dependent upon its relationships with its OEMs.  It's margins are narrow but its volumes are so high that it remains profitable while its OEMs take all the risks. 

As long as Ed Tech budgets are slim and the technical superiority of MacOSX is marginal, the low cost of Windows hardware will be the driving force in most workstation buying decisons which are not themselves mission-critical. 

Editorial standards